Lance Allen Wang, Assoc. Editor

In one of the classic books on the evolution of American warfare, historian Russell Weigley described how conventional American warfare developed into a strategy of “send bullets, not men.”   Indeed, it is a fundamental truism of American warfare that there is a trade-off between large numbers of American casualties and public support for military operations.   This aversion provided the impetus for development of weaponry with longer range, higher capacity and more power, in addition to other technologies which served to reduce casualties among American servicemen and women.   The immediacy of wartime media coverage combined with the willingness of the press to show the human cost of war has helped spur the further leverage of technology to extend our military capabilities

The newest developments are “movers and shooters” which are completely unmanned weapons– indeed, when we look back on the Global War on Terrorism, armed unmanned aerial drones will likely be seen as the most important technology to emerge.


Creating robotic technology was a natural extension of the American strategy to reduce casualties.   As with many explorations of new technology, it had both failures and triumphs in its development.   Perhaps one of the most famous failures was the BQ-8, which was a “robot” B-24 Liberator bomber, used in Operation Aphrodite in 1944.

The concept turned old bombers into “flying torpedoes,” flying by radio into their target and exploding.  The plan called for a pilot and co-pilot to get the bomber off the ground, arm the explosives, and bail out.   Then, under radio control, the bomber would crash into its target.   The target for the mission was Nazi sub pens at Heligoland in the North Sea.   Soon after the explosives were armed, the BQ-8 detonated, killing the two crewmen on board before they could bail out.   One of them was Navy Lieutenant Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., brother of future President John F. Kennedy.   In all, there were 14 missions in Operation Aphrodite during 1944-45.   None of them was successful.


During the Vietnam War, heavily modified target drones, specifically the AQM-34 Ryan Firebee, were turned into unmanned photo and electronic reconnaissance aircraft.    This classified operation called for the Firebee to be launched by C-130 transport aircraft, flying either a preprogrammed path or piloted by a remote operator, then recovered in midair by a specially designed helicopter.   The US military learned a great deal about drones during the Vietnam War, knowledge which would help make unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) commonplace decades later.


Israel’s conflicts and wars have often provided a test bed for technology and doctrine – the Yom Kippur War pointed out the limitations of airpower against surface to air missiles, and the limitations of armor against wire-guided anti-tank missiles while at the same time helping develop combined arms solutions to these challenges.  Israel’s 1982 operations in Lebanon against Syria demonstrated the value of integrating operational (as opposed to experimental) drone aircraft into their manned formations, with drones fulfilling the role of reconnaissance and electronic warfare.  Currently, Israel has a robust and developed drone program.


After limited use in DESERT STORM, the United States increased its development and use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, including for strike targeting during the Kosovo conflict.   Their ability to fly lower because of the absence of pilot risk made them excellent for post-strike assessment also.   By the time of the Global War on Terrorism, the ability to arm drones, as demonstrated on the MQ-1 “Predator” and MQ-9 “Reaper” drones, marked an evolutionary change in warfare – the truest manifestation of “send bullets, not men.”   Numerous high value targets have been attacked by remotely piloted vehicles.   Depending upon the type of strike mission and who is conducting it, pilots are sometimes half a world away, leveraging technology to provide capabilities far beyond what veterans of OPERATION APHRODITE could have ever imagined.

However, robotic warfare is not confined to the air.   The use of robots in explosives ordinance disposal has been very successful, and has been integrated into combat operations as a counter-Improvised Explosive Device (IED) measure; again, reducing personnel risk in extremely hazardous duty.   Current trends in development include autonomous “wingmen” for tanks, with manned armored vehicles flanked by robotic ones, controlled by the primary manned vehicle.   However, unmanned land vehicles have not yet developed the kind of durability and reliability for them to assume some of the load of land-based warfare.


From a technological standpoint, other than the durability issues, the issue of artificial intelligence as an obvious next step for robotic technology raises practical as well as ethical questions.   In the end, who makes the decision to fire a weapon is a decision fraught with risk if it is delegated to a machine.This remains a huge question in strategic nuclear warfare – shall a computer make the decision determining if an attack is real, and should we delegate our retaliation decision to a computer?   Just the same – should a drone determine if a target is the high value one we are seeking, and shall its digital innards make the decision to shoot?

The other challenge we face is the delusion of bloodless warfare which drone warfare seems to promise on the surface.   We may send bullets… and robots…. But we will always have to send men and women with an accompanying cost in blood and treasure.   T.R. Fehrenbach wrote, in his oft-quoted book on the Korean War, “This Kind of War: A Study in Unpreparedness,”

“Americans in 1950 rediscovered something that since Hiroshima they had forgotten: you may fly over a land forever; you may bomb it, atomize, pulverize it and wipe it clean of life – but if you desire to defend it, protect it and keep it for civilization, you must do this on the ground, the way the Roman legions did, by putting your young men in the mud.”

Volume 71. Number 1. Spring 2017

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